Multi-Directional Learning

How learning a language has helped me be a better tutor, and how being a tutor has helped me learn a language:

As a tutor, I’ve spent a lot of time with English Language Learners (ELLs), helping them to learn, you guessed it, the English language. I’ve learned a lot from these students, especially as I’ve started learning Spanish myself.

Things I’ve Learned from Tutoring:

1. When I started, I knew nothing about the language I had been speaking my whole life. ELLs knew a lot more about the structure of English than did. I had never heard of present perfect tense or countable nouns. When I started helping to teach people English, I was forced to re-learn it myself.

2. There’s a lot of stuff about the English language that does not make sense. I always panic when students point out contradictions in the rules and want to know why. I have no other answer for them except “that’s just the way English is. It doesn’t make sense to me either.” The students usually aren’t content with that answer, and I don’t blame them.

3. Someone can be grammatically correct but not guaranteed his or her teacher’s approval. I often see students write sentences that are grammatically correct but don’t use commonly accepted English phrases, and these sentences are usually considered incorrect. Which leads me to my next point:

4. I have a lot of problems with the way English and grammar are generally taught. Students are taught that there’s one way to write and speak. They’re taught that not all Englishes are created equal. And they want to speak and write using the “best” form of English. In the process of trying to do that, I worry that ELLs lose their own voice. They lose their accent and, consequently, a part of themselves. And that makes me sad. But I also know that, even if I allow them to keep their voice and their accent, their teachers will not. I constantly fight an ethical battle between my own principles and those I know the teachers will enforce.

What I Learned from Learning Spanish:

5. Legitimate empathy for language learning students. I now know how hard it is to sit in a class taught in a language that is not my own, to be in a constant state of rapid translation, to understand (on a good day) every third word my teacher says. I know how frustrating it is to have to have my teacher repeat a question three times before I understand what he’s asking me. I finally know how irritating it is that the language has exceptions, that there are masculine nouns that end in a, when all I want are clear rules. “That’s the way the language is” doesn’t always cut it for me, either.

How Tutoring and Language Learning Work Together:

6. I’m really glad that I was forced to learn the structure of the English language. Since I already know terms like direct object, present progressive, etc., it’s been a little easier for me to learn Spanish. I thank the ELL students who needed me to learn these terms.

7. I get to share my experiences with ELLs, and I think them knowing that I have an idea of what they’re dealing with helps them feel a little better when they’re struggling with a concept in English. 

8. I’m so much more patient with ELLs after starting to learn Spanish. I don’t get frustrated when I have to repeat myself three times, I welcome their questions and confusion, and I’m more willing to move as slowly as I need to during tutorials. 

Some Differences:

I think it’s also important to point out the differences between my experience and the experience of an ELL student.

1. If I’m legitimately lost, my teacher can explain the concept in my native tongue. ELL students, generally, do not have this privilege. I don’t fault the program for this. An ESL* teacher has a variety of students with different native tongues, and it’s unrealistic to expect him or her to learn all of them. But, still, learning Spanish is most likely easier for me than learning English is for most non-native speakers.

2. My Spanish teachers have been significantly more patient with me than ESL teachers are with ELLs. I get away with so many more mistakes than these students do, and there’s a reason for this:

3. These students have a lot more to lose if they don’t learn to speak English well than I do if I don’t learn to speak Spanish well. Because the United States, and our world, is so English-centric**, these students will miss out on many opportunities that are contingent upon knowing English. I might miss out on a few things here and there, but not in any way like they do.

Basically, I’m so grateful for the opportunity I have to work as a tutor. I’ve learned so much from this job, and it has truly helped me in my own education. I’ve guarantee I’ve been taught a lot more than I’ve taught. My coworkers and I say it all the time: we have the best job on campus!

*No, I didn’t just decide to start using ESL instead of ELL :). ESL is the name of the classes. ELL is a more correct term since, for some students, English is not their second language but their third or fourth. 
**I’m planning at least one post on our English-centered society and why I find it problematic, don’t worry. 

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